The history of human civilization is a history with a clear tendency towards the larger and more complex entities. From Families to Bands to Tribes to Chiefdoms to Kingdoms to States. It is one in which the number of relevant political entities has gone from more to less. Thus in Germania circa 15AD there was a patchwork of a few hundred tribes and tribal confederations, in 1015AD there were multiple competing lines of authority involving the Emporer, the Pope and about twenty Imperial principalities, plus a plethora of free cities, bishoprics, monasteries and estates, which would evolve into the tiny states, the kleinstaaterei, and in 2015AD that same bit of territory is controlled by only thirteen states, plus the EU. Indeed, we now have an extra layer of supranational governance and an alphabet soup of regional coordination agencies – NATO, NAFTA, NORAD, CCTS, ASEAN, WTO and OAS to name but a few. Despite the historical trend we are actually in anti-consolidation phase. In 1915 there were only sixty some sovereign states. Today, nearly two hundred. What accounts for these dual trends, the consolidation of governance in international agencies with a multiplication of the number of sovereign states? The UN identifies ten major government functions. Some of these, like Recreation, Culture and Religion, will, on average, be best served by smaller states, with a cohesive culture, unified identity, and tight link between ruler and ruled. Others, like Defence, will tend, on average, to be best accomplished by larger states, either due to greater and more diverse resources, or more effective rule making powers. The migration of governance functions to supranational institutions has, unsurprisingly, focused on those functions best accomplished by larger entities, and thus, increasingly, has made it unnecessary for small nations or proto-nations to subsume themselves in a larger state. There are six main functions which, I argue, have, in the more distant past, worked to drive territorial consolidation, and which now are either attenuated, or have in fact reversed their salience.
The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War Book V.
In the primordial condition, humans probably had no organized way of resolving disputes between members. Studies of modern day hunter gatherers suggest that conflicts between members are mainly handled socially through gossip, shaming, ostracism, and public debate until the conflict is over. As a last resort a dissatisfied member will simply walk away and join a different group, provided mobility is relatively easy. However, when it comes to between-group disputes, the tools required for the social management of conflict are lacking, and the solution is consequently much more likely to be violent. As the tribes became more agricultural, and consequently their numbers increased, the social prerequisites for informal conflict management began to diminish. A hunter gatherer needs to care deeply about his standing in the group, because hunting is subject to a feast and famine dynamic, and food resources are shared amoung the members as a form of primitive risk pooling. By contrast, while farming brings variable yields, the risks are far more serially correlated, and the subsistence farmer depends far more on his own labours than on his good standing with his neighbours for sustenance. In addition, the ability to leave is greatly diminished when your productive capacity is tied to immobile property. As population increases beyond the Dunbar limit, the ability of the tribe to compel compliance through sheer social pressure diminishes. The need for an orderly resolution of conflicts can be solved in any number of ways, but in general, we have solved it by delegating dispute resolution to a central body in charge of adjudicating conflicts.
Now the most important thing about the delegating adjudication of conflicts to a central authority with the power to compel adherence to it’s decisions, is that it allows for larger and more complex groups to resolve disputes basically peacefully. Disputes between groups, lacking an authority capable of compelling adherence, will tend to be resolved through either diplomacy or violence. There are however many different conceptions of what fairness requires, what justice consists of, what a just procedure involves, and the appropriate punishments for breaking the rules are. All things being equal, people would greatly prefer that rules be made by people who share their conception of the answers to questions of fundamental justice. This tends to be best accomplished by people who conceive of themselves as sharing a culture and a tradition that lends legitimacy to the ruling of the central authority. As a result, in a world where the most meaningful conflicts arise locally, we would expect that the number of people encompassed by a single sovereign to be small, and the number of sovereigns to expand.
There is however a tension here. First, in places where it is impossible for such a small homogeneous group to naturally occur, either because people who do not conceive of themselves as fundamentally the same are so intermixed that a single sovereign cannot be considered legitimate by all or nearly all it’s subjects, or because the local state has become fully captured by a local elite, it will be common for the persecuted to desire a larger state, so as to reduce the influence of the local oppressor. Secondly, where the majority of meaningful conflicts happen between parties without a common adjudicator both will regard as impartial and just, disputes must necessarily be resolved through force, or through some diplomatic solution, with force an omnipresent spectre in the background. In these cases the advantage tends to go to the more powerful country, which all else being equal, is the one who can bring more resources to bear, which is to say, the larger, more unified one. Thirdly, where a party will need to resolve conflicts in several jurisdictions at once, they will often prefer that all of those jurisdictions form a single jurisdiction for the relevant purpose, so that all disputes can be resolved in a similar manner.
So to sum that all up, the sovereign as dispute resolver tends to be most effective and efficient when it encompasses the largest number of people, encompassing several nations, so that as many disputes as possible can be resolved without violence or the threat of violence. However, when power resides in the people, they tend to desire to live according to their own customs and be governed by people who share their culture and values. Now lets look at the trend of recent history. Disputes are increasingly resolved, not according to the customs and particular laws of each nation, but instead are pre-negotiated amoung nations through treaties, like NAFTA, TPP, or through institutions like the WTO or ASEAN. Today, to a greater extent than ever previous, all states are organized along a basically neoliberal axiom, guaranteeing private property, accommodating shareholder capitalism, operating according to the rule of law, and under an explicit obligation to treat foreign and domestic parties to a suit equitably. Sixty years ago, if you wanted to do business in a foreign country, it helped to be located in a nation strong enough that, when the locals attempted to nationalize your production, your country had the might to overthrow the government. Such an action is now unlikely, both because states are more likely accommodate corporate entities, and further, because if a foreign government tried to nationalize your production you would be increasingly entitled under treaty provisions to sue for compensation. This reduces the benefit to being a citizen of a large state.
The ability to accumulate sovereign debt, either because of an economic crises, a war, or occasionally some massive public endeavour, is one of the keys to the resiliency and capacity of the modern state. The danger of excessive debt accumulation is not so much the cost of debt service, but the inability to borrow more at reasonable rates of interest. In general debt holding capacity tends to produce larger states, as larger states, all else being equal, are able to borrow more at lower interest rates than smaller ones, as the large state, being more economically diversified, is better able to handle a crises in any of its main industries. While this is still the case, the ability to hold debt has been greatly enhanced by modern supra-national institutions and laws.
Two examples may be illustrative, one violent, one peaceful. In 1879 a rebellion broke out in Egypt, amoung Arab officers angry at the close ties between the government and the French and British. Egypt had incurred tremendous debts building the Suez Canal, to largely British and French bondholders. When, in 1882, the rebellion looked like it was coming close to succeeding, and rumours began to spread that the coup leaders planned to default, the British decided to invade to prevent the default, leading to occupation which would last, in form or another, for seventy more years. Fast forward one hundred years however, and an Egypt unable to pay its debts in 1985, instead of being conquered by its creditors, was instead given a debt relief and restructuring package by the Paris Group. While the loss of sovereignty is real, it is explicitly temporary, and Egypt remained a sovereign country.
More peacefully, Scotland, in the late 1690s, made an attempt at becoming a colonial power, with the establishment of a colony in modern day Panama. Its failure nearly ruined the nation, and did end Scotland as an independent political entity. The English, in exchange for stabilizing the currency (Scotland was given assistance adopting the English pound) and about £400,000, nearly 60% of which went to shareholders of the failed colony, absorbed Scotland into a unified state. By contrast, Iceland, in the aftermath of the collapse of it’s financial sector, and requiring the stabilization of the currency and massive injection of foreign capital, considered adopting both the Euro and the Canadian Dollar, but ultimately got by with a bailout organized by the IMF and aggressive central banking and capital controls to stabilize the currency. Despite close cultural, historical and linguistic ties with several Nordic nations, the maintenance of sovereignty was never seriously brought into question.
Defence and Foreign Affairs
The single greatest force leading to a state’s territorial expansion is conquest. The biggest threat preventing the dissolution of multi-national states is violence from the state towards would be separatists. One of the greatest forces in uniting a formerly disparate and particularist nation is foreign domination. The clearest expression is the rise of Nationalism in Italy as the central and northern city-states gradually lost their independence to France and Austria, culminating in the conquest of Italy by Napoleon, followed by the installation of Austrian puppets in Central Italy and the complete cession of North and North East Italy to Austria at the Congress of Vienna. Generally, speaking when a state becomes aggressive, it is common for neighbours to band together to resist, and alternately, when a large group of small tribes is set to constantly fighting amoungst themselves, the unification of those squabbling tribes, and the redirection of that energy towards external targets, can produce a basically unified and dynamic nation, as with the Mongols or the Iroquois.
However, in the modern era, nations do not engage in direct military conquest, and ad hoc defensive alliances are increasingly replaced with institutionalized ones, such as NATO. Further, it is increasingly, though certainly not universally, viewed as illegitimate to maintain political union through force, especially in the face of the expressed will of the disaffected nation through a plebiscite or similar. If Venice were to secede, there is little chance that it would find itself conquered by a resurgent Austria, Turkey or Serbia and also unlikely, though by no means unthinkable, to be prevented from leaving by Italian force of arms. This dynamic functions both to reduce the number of multinational states created, and to increase the rate at which multinational states break-up
Access to Markets
The creation and maintenance of markets for goods and services is a core feature of the modern state, and the push for a creation of a common internal market is one of the hallmarks of the capitalist revolutions of early modernity. The American constitution created a single market within its borders, and the French National Constituent Assembly abolished internal trade barriers even before they had drafted the constitution. The creation of a common regulatory apparatus and the reduction of barriers to trade within a nation creates strong commercial ties between regions, allowing manufacturers to access natural resources, and resource extractors a stable market for their products. In addition, the modern state is the primary builder of the transportation infrastructure necessary for a modern economy. Far flung markets, and large populations, are fundamental to specialization and the division of labour that is the basis of modern prosperity. The desire to access these kinds of opportunities is part of why nationalism became such a powerful part of late 19th and early 20th century bourgeois liberalism, and is a powerful force preventing an otherwise dissatisfied people from seeking their own fortune.
However, in the modern era, the doctrine of free trade is so well established that secession doesn’t spell the end of economic integration. An independent Catalonia, far from losing access to Spanish markets, would maintain something like its current status by signing on to the terms of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. Similarly the creation of consumer protection and product standardization is increasingly being done, not on a national basis, but according to the standards of international organizations, like the IEC, UL, ANSI, NEMA or the ISO. Even where national standards are adopted, they are almost invariably merely adaptations of existing standards, allowing a single company to produce some of its components near Mexico City, others in Virginia and others in Milan, all to be sold to clients in Brazil, Portugal, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. If Lombardy decided it would be better off as an independent state, the Milanese components would still be manufactured as before. and sold to all the same people, including clients in Rome.
Fiscal transfers, the net transfer of money from one area to another, will tend to increase the desire on the part of net contributor to separate, and decrease the desire of the net recipient. This became especially apparent in the Scottish referendum of 2015, where a great deal of energy was expended arguing over whether the correct accounting gave each Scot an additional £1400 under union, as the Better Together campaign argued, or whether there was a Union penalty of £1000 as the No campaign argued. This is a pattern that shows up in many different separatist movements – separation generally requires a narrative of exploitation or oppression, and a sense of not being in control of your own destiny. When a nation seeking separation is wealthier than the state average it is hard to claim oppression, and so a narrative of exploitation must take root that requires, in part, a sense that the wealthier part is being taxed under rules it does not set, and without any sense of reciprocal obligation on the part of the recipient.
Belgium in this case can be instructive. In the aftermath of the French Revolution the (Protestant, Dutch speaking) United Provinces and the (Catholic French speaking) Austrian Netherlands were united under the (Dutch speaking) House of Orange-Nassau. The Dutch king, eager to start building a nation from his various subjects, began openly favouring the Dutch language and reformed church, much to the alarm of his French, Catholic subject in Wallonia and French, Catholic aristocrats in Flanders. Galvanized by the 1830 July Revolution in France, these French subjects rebelled, and, after some deft diplomacy and brief but intense fighting, were recognized as an independent country. Belgium, at the time of independence, consisted of a wealthy French speaking industrial south, Wallonia, and a Dutch speaking poor rural North, dominated by French speaking aristocrats. The result of this Wallonian economic and political dominance was a state that greatly privileged the French language, and a tax system that greatly disadvantaged Flemish agriculture. Naturally this lead to Flemish discontent, however this discontent manifested not as Flemish nationalism, but as a desire to join the Netherlands for protection on one side, and as a desire for formal equality within the existing system on the other. A small state in the 19th century had to be worried about being absorbed by bellicose neighbours, and Flanders was too poor to survive on its own. Later, in the direct aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, the Belgians became very aware of their own vulnerability, sandwiched between the German Empire and the Third Republic, with over half the population discontented speakers of a Germanic language, and the restrictions were gradually pulled back.
It was during the first world war, with an overwhelmingly french speaking officer corps leading a majority dutch speaking conscript army into the meat grinder of Ypres, that the spark of Flemish nationhood was lit. Even then however, with the french aristocrats discredited, Flemish nationalism was a narrow position. The separatist movements that did exist tended to seek unification with the Netherlands, not an independent Flemish state, and the mainstream simply sought greater rights within the Belgian state. Flanders was still caught between the German Reich and the Third Republic, and it was poor after all. Post world war II however things began to change. Steel, the heart of Wallonian prosperity, went from an economic engine to an economic drag, and the Trente Glorieuses lifted the Flemish boat further than the Wallonian one. The situation is now reversed, Flanders is the larger nation both economically and politically. However, the new settlement is not totally symmetrical. During the long period of Wallonian dominance Belgium functioned as a unitary state, giving the Walloons political control not just of Wallonia, but also of Flanders. The rise of Flanders however resulted in the federalization of Belgium, so that Flanders now contributes taxes to Wallonia, without the same kind of direct say over how those taxes are spent. It is in this environment, with a rich Flanders and a peaceful German Federation and Fifth Republic, that explicit nationalism, the secession of Flanders into an independent state, thrives.
It is note worthy that the mitigating factor here is control, which is to say, the net contributor will be sanguine about being a net contributor, as long as the general sentiment is that the contributor can control, not just of how much is being given, but what things are given, and by what rules the resulting taxes are dispersed. Thus, within Canada, Albertan separatism thrives when parties that Albertans do not vote for get power, and use it in ways that Albertans do not approve of, even if the net result is a lower fiscal transfer. Similarly, when the Prime Minister is perceived as an Albertan, and Albertans are given multiple positions of influence in the government, and the government is perceived as working in Alberta’s interest, separatism declines, even as fiscal transfers increase on average.
The opposite side of this coin is that nations that perceive themselves as being a poor fit with the larger state can be mollified with increased transfers from the larger state, within the bounds of reciprocal notions of fairness. However, as the share of state spending that goes towards the provision of social insurance services squeezes out discretionary spending that can be used for nation building, and transparency standards make it more difficult to do these kinds of transmuted bribes, and better accounting makes it ever harder to hide exactly who is getting how much, it may be becoming harder to nation build via pork.
Locus of Identity
When I first outlined my basic theory to some fellow sweet talkers, the response to the idea of the state as a locus of identity was to remark, “So basically everything France does?” Which is both fair enough and very American. The French are indeed famous for putting a premium on the preservation and propagation of certain notion of Frenchness, and the best account of the way that a nation was self-consciously constructed from people who thirty years previous only shared a state is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen. Beginning in the Eighteenth century, but especially in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth, there was a movement of cultural and intellectual elites, particularly the social contract theorists early on, and romantics and progressives later, to invest authority in some notion of the General Will of the People. Most famously Rousseau in The Social Contract: Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. The language is cribbed from the Church – For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many – I Corinthians 12: 12-14. That sense of the church as a body had been extended to encompass the sovereign, and, once the people were proclaimed sovereign, the Nation. This metaphor of the Body Politic, this sense of the Nation as a Person, is what gives structure to the otherwise abstract and formless idea of Nationhood. Just as a body, despite all of it’s constituent cells being completely replaced on a regular basis, maintains ontological continuity, so the Nation, despite all of it’s members being completely replaced on a regular basis, maintains ontological continuity. Just as the body is composed of various organs and members, with different structures and functions, working in relative harmony under the direction of the will (or so prevailing theory went), so the Nation is composed of various organs and members, with disparate abilities, structures and functions, all working in relative harmony under the direction of the General Will.
This metaphor goes further though. The ontological continuity of the body is dependant on a continuous consciousness. Thus, even if a person was to upload his consciousness into a machine, he would still be largely considered the same person as when he was flesh and blood. The important thing is a continuous history, a continuous story, and a continuity of self conception (again, per the prevailing theory). So it is with the Nation. A Nation is any group of people who share a common history, and accordingly, a common self-conception. There are two further entailments. If the body is subject to a single will, so the Nation must be subject to a single General Will. Since the General Will is embodied in the laws, therefore the Nation must all be subject to the same laws, which is to say, to have the same government. Secondly, since a single will controls a single body, so one General Will controls one Nation. And so, perhaps inevitably, the nation and the state become conflated, and, eventually the two concepts merge into a single unity – the nation-state. Now this is all metaphorical, it is all ideal, and so when it turns out that, in fact, a single nation is divided into several states, or alternately, that a single state contains many nations, it induces a subtle sense of wrongness, a sense that this sort of order is unnatural, and cognitive pressure is exerted to remedy this tension. The attempt to alleviate this tension was a major intellectual and cultural elite project for most of modernity. Yes the French, which turned Parisian in to French, and forced everyone from the Bretons to Savoyards to learn to speak it, and the Italians, who turned the Tuscan dialect of Opera and Dante into Italian and did the same as the French, but also Noah Webster and John Kenyon and John Dewey. Yes Richard Wagner, and Bayreuth, especially in Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, but also Frank Capra and John Ford and Hollywood. Yes the BBC, but also being forced to recite the pledge of allegiance, to memorize the preface to the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address, and celebrating the 4th of July and Veteran’s day. Even the quotidian, shopping on Amazon.com, and not Amazon.ca, or Amazon.co.uk, and checking American on the drop down box when you register your XBox live account and a hundred million other things large and small that stamp you indelibly, not as a New Yorker, or Floridian or Chicagoan or Catholic or Hindu, but as an American, as a member of a nation and of a state which has legitimate claims on you and you on it.
It was partly a faith in this process, that even where the state and the nation were only notionally united, nonetheless that the state building process could construct a nation from it’s citizens, and that it was right and good to do so, that allowed the great multi-national states to be built. That Great Britain and Ireland could be united under a single state, and eventually, into a single people, that peasant of Aquitaine could be transformed into a single collective with the bourgeois of Calais, and that however different the Acadiens, and the Blackfoot, if they were taught in a (state-run) school with the same (state-sanctioned) curriculum, speaking the same (state-sanctioned) language, attending the same (state-subsidized) cultural productions, they would in perhaps a single generation, and certainly no more than two, become part of the same Nation.
However, the metaphor of the body politic came under intense assault, starting almost as soon as it was devised, and intensifying at the start of the twentieth century, finally being basically killed after the second world war. Partly this was for consequential reasons. If a nation is a single body then citizens, Jews for instance or the Roma or the Kulaks, who were part of the state but not of the self conception of the nation must instead be seen as invaders, as cancers (Wagner’s Parsifal is instructive here). But also the folk theory of personal essences came increasingly under scientific assault. It is not in fact true that the body is composed of various organs and members, with different structures and functions, working in relative harmony under the direction of the will for example. This dealt a serious blow to the nation-building program. It was no longer quite so obvious that constructing a single identity from the disparate parts of the whole was wholly right and good In fact, and especially amoung intellectual and cultural elites, the whole project became suspect, certainly oppressive, possibly even genocidal. In it’s place came two currents. Firstly, a kind of multi-culturalism and anti-colonialism that rejects any attempts to force the assimilation of one nation into another. Secondly, an international turn. Intellectual and Cultural Elites increase spend their efforts, not on the creation of a self conscious national identity, but at an attempt to attack the foundations of national identity, and to create in it’s place a universalist human identity.
Special Thanks to fellow sweet talkers Adam Gurri, Adam Blackstone and Samuel Hammond for useful criticisms at every stage.